The Hill: OPINION: Child care has always been essential to our economy — let's start treating it that way

The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic and societal disruptions have highlighted an important truth: child care is essential to our return to work and our nation’s recovery.

Parents heal our sick, stock our shelves, design our products, and run our businesses—and, as any parent knows, those roles are secondary to our main job: raising and protecting our children. So, if we want to get parents back to work, we have to prioritize child care.

The economic benefits of child care are well documented. We know that our kids, parents, and economy rely on access to child care and that high-quality, affordable care will be central to our economic rebound. Also clear are the economic losses associated with its inaccessibility. A study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that in one state alone, a lack of child care is estimated to cost employers as much as $2.88 billion annually in lost productivity, absences, and turnover rate—and that was before COVID-19 forced many children and parents to stay home in lockdowns or remote environments.

A recent survey from Northeastern University has found that during the pandemic, working parents lose, on average, a full day of work productivity every week due to a lack of child care. It’s easy to see how this issue ripples through our economy, especially when we consider that about 60 percent of children age five and under in the United States rely on some type of non-parental arrangements for their care.

And without urgent action, that vital system could be on the brink of collapse.

A study released this month by the National Association for the Education of Young Children estimates that 40 percent of child care providers will permanently close without federal assistance. While the nation is already reeling from historic unemployment, we can’t afford such devastating loss to this industry—or the resulting loss in productivity, and possibly even jobs, for millions of moms and dads who will no longer be able to access child care.

And just like so many aspects of the pandemic, parents of color will be hit hardest by the lack of child care options, further exacerbating inequalities in America’s education system and workplace.

Communities have had serious child care shortages even before the pandemic. This sector is made up predominately by small businesses that operate on razor thin margins, often without access to reserve capital. While Congress was able to provide some relief through the CARES Act, mainly through the Payment Protection Program (PPP) and a boost to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), it fell well short of the needs to help providers to continue to safely open and operate. For some states such as Alaska, the CCDBG funds were only enough to cover one month of payments before they had to tap into their general funds to supplement the costs. In many states, providers have had to close down or operate on financial losses to provide support for our essential workers, and many are struggling to stay afloat amid the ongoing pandemic. Without additional assistance, which business leaders have called for child care providers may not have the financial resources needed to implement the necessary but costly new guidelines devised to keep staff and our children safe. In Massachusetts, for example, new safety requirements include limiting class sizes, constructing new walls to create separate confined spaces, purchasing additional equipment, and hiring more staff.

Congress must act now. Access to child care, or the lack thereof, cuts across almost every sector and business struggling to reopen in a safe and timely manner. And we need to acknowledge the repercussions of failing to address this challenge. There is no tenable path forward out of this economic crisis without first addressing this issue. Let’s ensure safe places for our kids so our parents can get back to work and our economy can regain its strength.

Katherine Clark represents the 5th District of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski is the senior senator from Alaska and Suzanne Clark is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

By:  Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Suzanne Clark
Source: The Hill

Related Issues: Education, Health